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Volume 6.2  03/15/2013
What is good architecture?
The second of a series.

by William Albinson, AIA
Updating Vitruvius
Vitruvius’ criteria of firmness, commodity and delight remain valid but need updating as we try to define good architecture. 
Firmness is no longer just structural integrity, but also durability, an important and sometimes difficult quality to achieve.  Commodity means usefulness but also clarity so that a building allows the visitor to understand its organization.  We delight in a building’s appeal, as it applies mostly, but not totally, to appearance and visual qualities. 

Durability: will a building last over time without unreasonable maintenance or major modification? 

Two issues affect durability the most: design and materials.  If either of them is inadequate, any part of a building can fail prematurely. 

Every building will fail eventually and, after a point, can only be kept intact with the extraordinary means that is suited for buildings of great historic importance. 

The real question is: Was the building constructed to last and to function over its appropriate life span?  A strip shopping center does not need to last 100 years but we expect that and more of the St. Louis Art Museum, a federal courthouse or the Gateway Arch.  At the beginning of any building project the relationship between durability and cost, not just for structure and shell but for the mechanical systems, is an issue worth thinking about.


Here are examples of durable buildings:

The Eagleton U. S. Courthouse (1) uses high quality exterior and interior materials in the form of stainless steel roof domes and terrazzo floors in the main public spaces.

The East Building of the St. Louis Art Museum (2) employs clean lines and simple shapes that belie the high quality of materials and finishes that will be apparent when the addition opens at the end of June. (3)



The same is true for the recent addition (the Bloch Building) to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City although its forms are far from simple. (4)

Durability’s opposite is obsolescence.  It concerns the adaptability of a building to functional and technological change.  Vitruvius dealt with a slower rate of change.  We reconfigure our office environments so often that they are typically composed of demountable partitions that can be relocated, updated, or replaced without affecting the building shell.

Premature obsolescence, or uselessness, can be a significant flaw in a building. A building conceived as rigidly specific to its intended function maybe destined for early demolition - a terrible waste of resources.




Clarity: Is the building’s use apparent from the outside? Can you understand the building’s organization as you enter and move through it, especially if it is a public building? Are the spaces logically arranged?

In public buildings the visitor should enter a lobby or atrium that provides a clarity of understanding of how the building is organized.

At the St. Louis City Hall (5) the visitor enters an open central space (6) from which stairs and elevators lead to open corridors and offices.





The Bloch Building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum (7) in Kansas City has an addition that is unusual in many ways including its linear organization. A long but far from boring main circulation space takes the visitor gradually past and through various galleries. (8) Visitors do not mind the walk and in good weather they can make the return trip through the sculpture garden.

Appeal:  Is the building a pleasure to be in?  Is the image of the building appropriate to its role?   Does the building appeal to you on inside as well as outside?  Architecture differs from sculpture.  It has a sheltering function to fulfill, it requires great investment beyond the designer’s resources and it goes beyond exterior form to create interior space using materials and light.





Two very different buildings are both appealing:The Saint Louis Art Museum’s 1904 Beaux Arts Main Building uses the Sculpture Hall (9) as a central organizing space. The main galleries extend from it in two and three dimensions. It provides a sense of arrival as a place to enjoy, get your bearings, and to decide what to see. It proclaims the value of art.

The Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City (10) uses soaring forms to create pre function spaces for the performances in this recently completed venue. The building’s public lobbies are really a single space that combine verticality with full height glass walls giving a feeling of being in the outdoors. (11)



These three criteria of durability, clarity and appeal help to define good architecture.  However, the examples used are all large public buildings on which a great deal of time and money was spent.  These buildings were also, for obvious reasons, built to last a long time. 

The next issue will include some smaller but significant buildings that still fulfill the criteria of durability, clarity and appeal.  It will also consider some that do not appear to fulfill these criteria along with the reasons they fall short.

Previous issues of DESIGN NOTES can be found under Topics of Interest at


Image Credits:

1  Eagleton Courthouse Interior, Image courtesy of U. S. General Services Administration.
2  East Building with 1904 Beaux Arts Main Building behind, Image courtesy, St. Louis Art Museum and Architectural Wall Systems, Photo by Jacob Sharp, David Chipperfield, Architect.
3  East Building at dusk, Image courtesy St. Louis Art Museum, David Chipperfield, Architect.
4  Aerial view of the Nelson-Atkins. Copyright Timothy Hursley. 2006, Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
5  St. Louis City Hall Exterior, Brandon Bartoszek Photographer.
6  St. Louis City Hall Interior, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., HABS MO,96-SALU,68—8, B& W Print, 1968
7  Bloch and Nelson-Atkins Buildings from J. C. Nichols Plaza. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Copyright Timothy Hursley, 2006
8  Interior of the Bloch Building. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Copyright Timothy Hursley, 2006, Steven Holl, Architect
9  St. Louis Art Museum, Sculpture Hall, , Image courtesy, St. Louis Art Museum, Cervin Robinson Photographer, 1977, Cass Gilbert, Architect.
10 Exterior by Tim Hursley, Courtesy Kaufmann Center, Moshe Safdie, Architect.
11 Brandmeyer Great Hall photo by Tim Hursley, Courtesy Kaufmann Center, Moshe Safdie, architect.

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